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The Bread Revolution: Food Prices Play a Key Role in Egyptian Uprising

The Bread Revolution: Food Prices Play a Key Role in Egyptian Uprising

Time’s Ecocentric blog has an interesting story about the link between rising food prices and the unfolding revolution in Egypt.

In the last few days, soaring food prices have been cited as one of the proverbial straws that led Egyptians to take to the streets in frustration over Murbarak’s 30-year rule….Global wheat prices are at an all-time high, and other grains and meat prices were up over 20% by the end of 2010. Though some 40% of Egypt’s 80 million residents live in poverty, high food prices don’t have the same impact in Egypt that they might have in other vulnerable countries. The nation has a huge subsidy program that, when its working right, helps protect its poorest citizens from inflated food prices.

The most telling data point from the article is that bread is central to Egyptian culture and diet and they are in the unenviable position of relying heavily on imports.

In Egypt, the Arabic word for bread — “aish” — is also the world for life. Egyptians are the world’s largest consumers of bread and Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer.

To make matters more tenuous, Egyptians spend a very high percentage of their incomes on food. By comparison, Americans spend around 10% of disposable income on food.

Food Safety Modernization Act Debate: Farmers vs. Foodies or Farmers vs. Farmers

Food Safety Modernization Act Debate: Farmers vs. Foodies or Farmers vs. Farmers

The food blogosphere has been abuzz this week with news about S 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. Go here and here for background. It appears that amendments to the bill to allow more flexibility for small farms are going to make it into the bill. Yesterday, in response to these developments, a cadre of large vegetable grower organization wrote a letter to congress. Go here to read the full text. Here’s the key excerpt:

Comments from Senator Tester and supporters are now making it abundantly clear that their cause is not to argue that small farms pose less risk, but to wage an ideological war against the vast majority of American farmers that seeks to feed 300 million Americans. We are appalled at statements by Senator Tester reported today in the Capital Press that “Small producers are not raising a commodity, but are raising food. Industrial agriculture, he said, takes the people out of the equation.”

I think that sentence highlights an important piece of the equation that maybe is lost in the way the story is being reported. Whereas the headlines are pitting farmers market foodies against farmers, this actually is primarily a debate between farmers in the ag community. Tester is talking about two different ways of farming. He probably has in mind the small farmers he knows from Montana more than he has in mind Michael Pollan or locavores. The small scale farmers I know are the biggest critics of large scale, “commodity” farming.

For example, I recently spoke with the folks from the small local dairy, Spokane Family Farm. I wanted to get their perspective on the recent Dairy Management controversy. The husband and wife team were “shippers” with Darigold for many years, which means that they had milking cows that they harvested milk from, and their responsibility ended when the Milky Way truck drove away with their gallons of milk. They had many frustrations with the system. They didn’t like that their milk was being mixed together with other milk, regardless of quality or bacteria counts. They were discouraged by the complicated supply chain between cow and customer. As Trish Vieira described the milk chain, the milk leaves the farm in a non-refrigerated truck where bacteria multiply at rapid rates. Then the milk is unloaded and because of high bacteria counts has to be boiled to 285 degerees which effects the quality and the nutrition. Then, because so much nutrition has been boiled out of it they then add back in undisclosed additives to meet government standards.

Trish made a great point when she said everyone at these different stages along the way is doing a good job, for the most part. The problem in her mind, is that everyone can do a good job at what they are assigned to do in the current system, and the end result is not so good. You end up with farmers’ who are forced to have thousands of cows in order to make a living, which forces them to borrow a lot of money, and in some cases cut corners on quality. You end up with milk processors who are so paranoid about food safety that they “kill” the food in order to sell it. And you end up with consumers who are getting a food that is less nutritious. Trish had a lot to say about the negatives effects of homogenization, and the way it changes the fat molecules so that they are more easily absorbed in the intestines. I’ll have to do more research on that before I ring the alarms on that one. Trish also said that the current system leads to excess milk in the food chain, which is part of the reason why Dairy Management is having to work so hard to sell cheese.

My point is that this is a farmer who is not happy with the current system and their response has been to go small and local. The Tester amendments are intended to help people like the Veira’s be able to have 30 head of cattle and make a living without being squeezed to death by beauracracy in the new Food Safety law. Business is hopping by the way and they are trying to figure out how to meet the growing demand among consumers for local, nutritious, farmer connected milk.

Here is a comment from a dairy farmer in response to my post on Dairy Management:

Thank you for clarifying this! I actually sit on one of the local check-off boards and also as a dairy farmer some of my check-off dollars go to DMI. I agree that the NYT article is a bit confusing and the headlines that were chosen as it was reposted went for the “taxpayer outrage” strategy. I can already hear the dairy industry focusing on this confusion and not on the fundamental problems in the industry and how farmers and eaters actually fare in the system. We have a system based on the assumption of ever increasing volumes of milk (and all other crops for that matter). This is the issue and family farmers are getting hurt by this oversupply and eaters are getting crappy-food promoted to them to get rid of the surplus. This is the problem. Don’t get distracted people, keep watching carefully! Thanks!

I like the way he highlights how “farmers and eaters” aren’t fairing so well in the current system. We have a food system dominated by corporations, and they are really the ones who see the food as a commodity. It’s the farmers’ and the eaters who are struggling in their own ways to reform the system. The current debate on the Food Safety Bill is a reflection of this struggle.

So let’s remember that it’s not the foodies against the farmers. No one is more aware of problems with the food system than farmers. If the system is going to be reformed it’s going to take the eaters and the farmers working together to change it.

Food Safety Modernization Act Headed for Passage – Fate of Small Farms Amendments Uncertain

Food Safety Modernization Act Headed for Passage – Fate of Small Farms Amendments Uncertain

I reported earlier on the fears that the Food Safety Modernization Act now before Congress could put small farmers’ out of business and send a destructive ripple through the burdgeoning local food movement. Yesterday the bill passed a cloture vote in the Senate which means it will likely soon be passed and put into law. The amendments to lower the negative impact on small farmers are still up in the air, and it sounds like there is an epic battle going on right now among legislators, big food lobbyists, and locavores.

Huffington Post yesterday even went as far as to say “Locavores Hold Up Food Safety Bill in Senate.” They’ve subsequently changed the headline to “Local Food Advocates”, but yesterday it was all about those pesky, food-luddite locavores who were gumming up the works. I guess we officially have a Locavore Lobby in this country now.

Grist has been all over this so I’ll turn it over to them:

Two very important amendments to the bill are currently the subject of fierce lobbying by industry. We’ve already extensively discussed the Tester-Hagan amendment, which would exempt small and very small farms and food processing businesses (defined as those that make under a certain amount of money, and that earn at least 50 percent of their revenue from direct-to-consumer sales like farmers markets or CSAs), from some of the bill’s requirements.

It’s worth noting that such direct sales of agricultural products totaled just $1.2 billion in 2007, or 0.4 percent of total agricultural sales, according to the USDA. That’s the tiniest drop in the bucket, but it’s growing fast every year — sales are up 105 percent in the last decade, double the rate that overall agricultural sales have grown.

Which may explain why agribusiness groups considers such small operations enough of a threat that they’re taking the legislative route to block any further growth.

If you want to get your food wonk on, go to Grist and read up on the whole interesting process. Here is a good place to start:

Will the Food Safety Modernization Act harms small farms and producers?

Grist reports that it’s still not too late to call your Senator:

There’s still time to tell your senators that you want them to ignore these industry lobbying groups and pass a bill that will better protect all Americans from food-borne illness and known carcinogens in their food. Call them today: Go to www.Senate.gov to find your representatives’ contact information or call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121.

Because if you’ve read the 20,000 words of debate that Grist has published about this bill, you hopefully agree with our panelists that the system it will create, though concerningly vague in places, will be better than the one we’ve got now.

How My Little Blog Out-Reported the New York Times

How My Little Blog Out-Reported the New York Times

On Monday I wrote up a post on the much heralded New York Times article,While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales. This kind of story is the bread and butter of the fast evolving food blogosphere, of which Year of Plenty is a very small part. A large media outlet like the Times does the original reporting and then it gets echoed throughout the blogosphere, Twitterverse, and Facebook Friend-Feed-Frenzyverse. It received so much attention that I initially wasn’t going to bother linking to it, assuming that everyone had already seen it. But when I got around to actually reading the Times article, something didn’t seem quite right. The article was factually correct in its reporting but cryptic in the way it described the relationship between the USDA and the Dairy Management Corporation. It hinted that the U.S. taxpayer-funded USDA was pulling the strings on the Domino’s marketing campaign.

This subtle hint in the article was turned into the brash assertion all over the internet that U.S. taxpayers were not only paying for the $12 million campaign with Domino’s for extra-cheesy pizzas, but that the USDA, and therefore the government, was running the ad campaign. While I highlighted in my post some smaller blogs that reported the story this way, Bill Bishop at the Daily Yonder gives a good summary of how this played out among some of the most influential people and news platforms in America:

Food writer and journalism professor Michael Pollan tweets that “our tax dollars (are) at work promoting Domino’s pizza.”

Kerry Trueman (co-founder of EatingLiberally.org) states on the liberalHuffington Post that Domino’s Pizza is selling gobs of cheese with the help of a “government handout.”

The Atlantic says the “government wants to fatten you up with cheese.”Paul Waldman at The American Prospect writes a government agency uses “taxpayer funds” — “your tax dollars” — to promote double melt cheeseburgers.  Matt Yglesias writes a headline saying “Tax Dollars Going to Subsidize Cheesier Dominoes (sic) Pizzas,” adding that this is the kind of “government spending…we could entirely do without.”

Because of previous stories I’ve done on the agricultural checkoff programs, these assertions didn’t sound quite right. So I did something that Michael Moss,“ace New York Times Reporter” didn’t do; I made a couple phone calls and actually talked to someone at Dairy Management about the program. As far as I can tell, in all the reporting that’s been done on the story, I’m the only “reporter” that talked to Dairy Management to better understand their relationship to the USDA. I also talked to a representative of United Dairymen of Idaho to get a better understanding of how the checkoff system works.

Moss explained in the article why he didn’t have those conversations:

The Agriculture Department declined to make top officials available for interviews for this article, and Dairy Management would not comment. In answering written questions, the department said that dairy promotion was intended to bolster farmers and rural economies, and that its oversight left Dairy Management’s board with “significant independence” in deciding how best to support those interests.

The crux of the whole story is the nature of the relationship between the USDA and Dairy Management and Moss didn’t speak to anyone at either entity? He apparently got a written response to questions from the USDA. This may be a case of the USDA and Dairy Management not doing their job of accurately explaining the nature of the relationship, but I’m baffled that I could get through to them to ask probing questions and he couldn’t.

So is it possible that I did a more thorough job of reporting on the relationship between the USDA, Dairy Management, and taxpayers than the New York Times?

I’m flattered that the “So Good” food blog seemed to think so. In assessing the reporting on the USDA and Dairy Management the blog says;

The most accurate breakdown of this organization’s role in this story can be found in this post on Year of Plenty, Newsflash: Dairy Industry Wants You to Eat More Dairy – What’s So Controversial About That?

I’ll let you read my blog post to decide if I did a more thorough job, but I do know that because of those phone calls I didn’t take the “tax-payers paying to promote cheesy pizza” bait, like so many others.

There are a couple of lessons for me in this;

1. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.

2. Don’t believe everything you read in the New York Times.

3. When it comes to food politics and debates about food systems, the problem is not the demonization of food, as the Daily Yonder proposes. The problem is the demonization of people. In this case the demonization of people at the USDA and Dairy Management as evil cheese-conspirators.

If this is the problem than the solution is to talk to people and give their perspectives a genuine hearing. In other words, to be in relationship with people. In my case, when it comes to writing about food, that means being in relationship with small local farmers and large scale farmers, conventional and organic, following Grist and #agchat on Twitter. It takes all perspectives to get the story straight. Go here for a recent post on why living in an agricultural region like Spokane where I am in ongoing relationships with people involved in all aspects of the food system makes me a better food blogger.

One of the grand lessons from our year-long experiment in eating local is that relationships with people involved in bringing food to market is the key to developing just and sustainable food systems. This includes farmers, but it also includes business people. The core crisis in the food system is a break-down in the relationships between people involved with bringing food to market and those sticking the food in their mouths. Relationships breed accountability, pride, quality, health, and sustainability. A vaccuum of relationships creates paranoia, pollution, corruption, unhealth, shoddy practices, and most of the other ills in the food system. That’s why I am committed to eating locally and promoting local food.

My diagnosis of the situation is more than just about good reporting and blogging. (Warning: If you don’t follow my blog this is going to sound totally random.) It’s actually rooted in my Christian faith and my role as pastor at a Presbyterian church. My focus on relationships arises from my understanding of Jesus’ commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. In my judgement, this call to be in relationship with people is the key lens through which to see everything, including food. In my upcoming book I have a chapter dedicated to explaining this perspective. I hope it will be a helpful contribution to food debates that too often get bogged down haggling about food miles, carbon footprints, or cheesy marketing campaigns.

Food Fight: Washington Post Foodie Ezra Klein Defends Industrial Agriculture

Food Fight: Washington Post Foodie Ezra Klein Defends Industrial Agriculture

6a00e5500a0b5588340134876e98f9970c-500wiEarlier in the week influential blogger Ezra Klein of the Washington Post wrote a short post dismissing the influence of the local food movement and heralding that “Industrial farms are the future.” He wrote;

Despite the dreams of many foodies, I can’t think of a major industry that went from small, decentralized production methods to large, scaled industrial production — and then back again. Are there any examples I’m missing? Maybe so. But for now, I think of the preference for farmers markets and small producers as being mainly important in sending certain signals about production methods and branding preferences to Big Ag than in actually creating some sort of viable alternative.

In the article he references an article from the Guardian in the UK where Jay Rayner argues;

Words such as local, seasonal and organic have become a holy trinity. But these are merely lifestyle choices for the affluent middle-classes, a matter of aesthetics, and nothing to do with the real issues.

If we are to survive the coming food security storm, we will have to embrace unashamedly industrial methods of farming. We need to abandon the mythologies around agriculture…and recognise that farming really is an industry, much like car manufacturing or steel forging, one which always works better on a mass scale, but which can still be managed sustainably.

Ezra Klein is a farmers’-market-shopping, meatless-monday-eating, full-on-foodie so his little post created quite a stir. Tom Philpot at Grist offered up the highest profile retort. He mainly takes down Rayner’s editorial and tisk-tisks Klein for passing it off as meaningful commentary. He writes;

Rayner’s argument goes like this: a) because the U.K. relies increasingly on food imports, and b) U.K. supermarkets demand flawless, uniform fruits and vegetables, forcing farmers to “grade out” much high-quality produce, and c) U.K. consumers have come to expect dirt-cheap food, then the nation “will have to embrace unashamedly industrial methods of farming” to avoid looming famine.

Really? The same line of reasoning could more logically have led Rayner in the opposite direction: that Britain’s food problems stem from a globalized industrial food system consolidated into the hands of a few powerful companies.

Yesterday, Klein offered a little bit of an apology for citing the Guardian editorial, which he admits is weak, but he sticks to his guns when it comes to the future of food being industrial;

…I’m increasingly less convinced that small and big are, in the overall scheme of things, terribly useful dividing lines for the future of agriculture. Whether one could hypothetically imagine feeding the world using decentralized production methods, I don’t see much reason to believe it will happen. At the same time, small farms can be run wastefully and large farms can be run sustainably.

When I say that the food movement is sending important signals to America’s agribusiness giants, I mean it — forcing them to innovate in organics and compete with Stonyfield and think about the success of farmers markets are types of pressure that could lead to really important transformations in how they do their business. And those are transformations that might then be copied by large producers in other countries. That’s why I think the most important role of the food movement is potentially changing the behavior of players like Nestle and ConAgra, and creating some large companies that demonstrate how a different ethos of food production can be brought to industrial scale.

Andrew Sullivan just pinged this dialogue so I suspect it will get a lot of play on blogs and editorial pages in the coming weeks.

This little food fight touches on so many different aspects of what I blog about here that it’s a little hard for me to decide where to enter in, but let me pick one aspect of the debate and see where it leads.

Klein mentions the hypothetical question as to whether it’s possible to feed the world through decentralized production methods. It’s typical in these debates for defenders of industrial ag to assert that it’s not possible to feed the worldusing organic or local methods and others reply that, actually, you can. Klein dismisses this line of argument as irrelevant. He says it’s not going to happen. He asserts that we have never seen “a major industry that went from small, decentralized production methods to large, scaled industrial production — and then back again,” which is what would need to happen in the case of food. The industrial cat is out of the bag and there is no turning back. All we can hope for is mega-corporations that are responsible and responsive to consumer demands for more sustainable and local food.

He takes the the pose of the realist and on one hand I agree with him. I often say (I just said it yesterday in fact), that real substantial change in food distribution will have to come through changes to big retailers like Walmart. For an example of how this is happening with potatoes go here.

But I disagree with Klein’s and Rayner’s foundational assumption – that the production of food is best viewed as an “industry, much like car manufacturing or steel forging, one which always works better on a mass scale…” For one, there is mounting evidence that food production does not work better on a mass scale. It’s only over the last 75 years that food has been imagined as an industry and practiced as such. We fed the world for millennia with small, local and organic agriculture. Modern industrial food practices are a very recent innovation and the long term consequences are still unknown.

There is no doubt that modern technologies have been a boon to the task of feeding people around the world, but there is something different about food than making cars or forging steel. Manufacturing cars is a product of the industrial revolution. Eating food arises out of the very nature of the created order. For all of history food amounted to more than the shallow categories of industry. Food was culture, family, provision, and for the three major religions of the world, a sign of God’s grace.

In the Genesis account of creation the first words out of God’s mouth to Adam and Eve are, “You are free to eat….” Not far behind is the warning, “You must not eat…” After their disobedience, God proclaims judgment, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:17-19). Even in judgment there is a grace of provision.

It’s funny to me how casually we throw around the phrase “saving the world” in debates about sustainability. Isn’t it so obvious that “going green” is a veiled, modern-secular way of entering into the territory of apocalypse and salvation, the ancient categories of the human quest for life and meaning and God. Food goes deep into mysterious and hallowed places of human existence. Food cannot be reduced to the limited categories of industry and it does great damage to imagine it exclusively as such.

There is one thing I agree with in the Guardian column. Rayner says that the local, seasonal and organic food movements are a matter of aesthetics, and have nothing to do with the real issues of industrial practices and pragmatics of feeding the world. He’s right in pointing out that what drives the local food/sustainable food movement is, something beyond the pragmatism of calories and food miles, something more intangible. Aesthetics is a rather dismissive way of putting it. I would say that it arises out the human search for meaning and hope.

One last comment. Rayner claims that it’s only the well-off middle-class who have the luxury to dismiss the reality of food as industry. In my experience it’s actually the impoverished 2/3 world that understand the reality that food is more than industry. To the majority world food is culture, family and life. Most of the world gets that those are “real issues” that are relevant to conversations about food. Wealthy westerners are actually the innovators of the exclusive view of food as industry and profit margin. It is our particular single-minded lens that is foreign in the world.

The insurgent foodies in the western world are attempting to lift up other issues that are very real, issues that touch on aspects of human life that industry can never reduce and control, and issues that impact and change industrial practices.

As I see it, the task is not to de-industrialize food, the task is to re-enchant, re-annimate, and re-new our imaginations around food, which by necessity means to re-connect with the land that supplies us with food (and perhaps the Creator of the land), and along with that to re-connect with the farmers who farm the land.

Federal Food Safety Modernization Act Could Put Small Farmers Out of Business – Do Something to Help

Federal Food Safety Modernization Act Could Put Small Farmers Out of Business – Do Something to Help

I’ve been hearing rumblings about the the potential onerous impact of theFederal Food Safety Modernization Act on small farms for awhile now. The upshot is that it would impose regulatory requirements that would be untenable for small direct to consumer farmers to handle. It could be a huge setback for the growing movement of direct to consumer sales at Farmers’ Markets. One farmer I talked to said that if this legislation passes as it’s currently written he will retire.

There is currently an amendment from Montana Senator Jon Tester that would exempt farms who sell direct to consumers. Ellen Gray, Executive Director of WA Sustainable Food and Farming Network sent the following information for people in Washington who want to advocate for small farms;

PLEASE CALL SENATOR  MURRAY Toll Free: 1- 866-481-9186 Very quick…just tell the person answering the phone that you a constituent and you want her to support Tester’s Amendment. Her office knows about the issue. They  just need to hear from more consituents!

PLEASE CALL SENATOR CANTWELL Toll Free  1-888-648-7328 again, you can just leave a message..very quick..

ASK THEM TO SUPPORT SENATOR JON TESTER’s AMENDMENT  TO S.510, The Food Safety Modernization Act. The TESTER amendment exempts farms that sell directly to the consumer. Without this amendment the federal legislation will have a huge negative impact on local small farms that sell at farmers markets, to Food Co-ops, CSA customers and local processing facilities!   PLEASE MAKE THE CALL NOW because our friends in Washington DC think the bill could be voted on the Senate floor tomorrow or friday. See below for more info.

If you’re not in Washington go here for the contact information for your Senators.

Arsenic In Kids Traced to Backyard Chicken Feed

Arsenic In Kids Traced to Backyard Chicken Feed

Some kids in Utah were found to have high levels of arsenic in their bodies and they traced the source to the eggs they were eating from their backyard chickens. Apparently the feed contained roxarsone, an arsenic based additive common in chicken feed. Grist has the scoop;

Used in combination with antibiotics, arsenic helps keep chickens, turkeys, and pigs from getting sick in crowded conditions, and also makes them grow bigger, faster. While this sounds nuts — feeding a notorious poison to animals you plan to eat — the poultry industry, along with Food and Drug Administration officials, is quick to point out that there are two kinds of arsenic: inorganic, aka the cancer-causing “bad” kind, which occurs naturally in the environment in combination with other elements such as oxygen, chlorine, and sulfur; and organic. No, not the kind you can get from Whole Foods: in this case “organic” refers to compounds containing carbon, or hydrogen. Organic arsenic is considered less toxic, and that’s what’s used in animal feed, usually in the form of roxarsone.

The key word there is “less.” FDA spokesperson Ira Allen wrote in an email to me that:

FDA completed food safety assessments in conjunction with the approval of the arsenic-containing animal drug products. As part of that assessment process, FDA established tolerances for the presence of arsenic in animal-derived food. For example, the tolerance for total arsenic in uncooked muscle tissue from chickens is 0.5 parts per million (ppm). FDA does not at this time have evidence that residues of total arsenic in animal-derived food are exceeding the established tolerances.

Looks like our chickens are going to get an upgrade to spendy organic chicken feed.